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The philosophy of the liberal arts says that education should train the mind to think. But today teachers are being forced to serve two masters: the old master of good curricula and the new master of standardized testing…

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis writes, “What do they teach them at these schools?” It is a question that resonates in our debates about education today. What do we teach them, how do we teach them, and why do we teach them? This boils down to the question: what is the goal of education?

First we have to consider the purpose of education. The philosophy of the liberal arts says that education should train the mind to think. In its search for beauty, goodness, and truth, the ability to reason and to express oneself is more important than the ability to memorize gobs of disconnected information, or the learning of several disconnected subjects. Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” is the best-known work used by today’s neo-classical movement, in which primary and secondary schools attempt to approach education through the seven liberal arts. The approach to the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric is more easily followed in today’s classical schools, even if the teachers and students speak English instead of some older language such as Greek or Latin. However, the quadrivium of geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy has been replaced by the modern quadrivium of biology, chemistry, physics, and various levels of mathematics, with space and earth science generally taught around the eighth grade.

Another philosophy of education is more pragmatic. What we typically overlook is that when classical education was in its prime, it really was job training. Two thousand years ago, the best job a person could get, if not in line to be an emperor, for example, was supposedly as a rhetorician, for such a person could represent someone in court (see Acts 24:1). This required a good knowledge of rhetoric, which to a lawyer or orator was the basis of his argument. Those born into nobility and who were trained in a classical manner were not just trained to be thinkers but to be leaders and to keep the family dynasty going.

Today, we also need to support ourselves and our families, so job skills need to be emphasized. This has often been the cry of the student who does not want to spend a lifetime in intellectual pursuit. Who needs Latin and Greek? We who want to become plumbers, farmers, and electricians need technical training including hands-on experience outside the classroom. Save philosophy for those who want to spend their lives reading, we have got other goals.

San Antonio, Texas, for example, is trying to get a program going from pre-kindergarten through college, to fast-track students for jobs. As reported March 31, 2016, on Texas Public Radio:

Last fall 500 of the city’s educators along with government and industry leaders gathered for a summit to crack one of the biggest problems in the region: identify and fix the gaps in education success.

They decided to focus on developing a continuous pathway of academic achievement from Pre-K to College Graduation and to develop the work force of tomorrow. County Judge Nelson Wolff said he knows this is a tall order but the first step is to develop a vision for the community and get students on a fast track to good jobs.

A third philosophy emphasizes socialization, the ability to function in a society as envisioned by either one or a possible combination of certain classes of those in authority, such as the politicians, the clergy, the educators, even the parents. Students picking up trash near an elementary school, or having to take a chartered bus during school hours to a center to pack food boxes to go overseas, or being required or at least encouraged to do volunteer hours, and similar suggestions or requirements often add little to a student’s knowledge but teach the child how to fit into modern society in a fashion envisioned by agenda-driven people. According to H. L. Menchen:

The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.

In any of this, of course, there is the consideration of teaching children social skills. Not to be confused with the socialization above, even those who reject the notion that society should conform us to its image typically want children to be able to interact, to learn voluntary sharing, to learn to line up, to take turns, and to function not autonomously but as members of some type of group, even if it is not society as envisioned by left-leaning leaders.

The United States has the best graduate schools in the world, which attract hordes of foreign students. For example, chemistry departments have many graduate students from China and India. A chemistry graduate student can ask a research advisor for a chemical on Friday, and it might arrive the next Wednesday, five calendar days later. This can take seven months in India. We also have many of the best universities, with our Ivy League schools having particularly good reputations. But our K-12 system has earned a poor reputation worldwide. An educator raised in Turkey recently mentioned that the American school system ranks as number seventy. Talks with people from other nations should convince us how bad our school system is. France has their children go to school until around 5 pm, according to a young lady who went through their school system as the daughter of American missionaries. An Irish-raised mechanic, while trying not to insult his adopted country of America, complained that we have no exit exams and that we concentrate too much on things like homecoming or the prom. In Ukraine, students have algebra and geometry throughout the week, geometry one day, algebra the next, in seventh or eighth grade. Education is better as a whole in the United States in the private schools than in the public schools, but private schooling itself is no guarantee of educational success. As parents threaten to sue teachers, as grades need to be inflated, and as proms and pep rallies eclipse true academics in the minds and the schedules of our youth, there is no deliverance in sight.

Say what we will, Christian elementary and postsecondary schools are typically Christianized versions of public schools. This is largely because of education laws. Even the classical Christian schools are still schools, despite the emphasis on what many see as a better educational philosophy, a superior paradigm, and better-working pedagogy than that of non-classical (traditional) schools. Articles about classical education can contain so many Latin terms that we might think that we do not really understand good education, which makes classical education seem even more impressive. Both classical and traditional Christian schools still have behavioral problems, students in need of individualized education plans (IEPs), and a tuition-driven economy that makes expelling students or upsetting parents very difficult. But they are also falling victim to one of the latest crazes in education: an increased emphasis on standardized testing.

In a certain Christian school, the administration came up with intervention plans based solely on standardized testing. The test results did not necessarily correlate with classroom performance and did not seem to do any good for the students. Teaching is teaching, and learning is learning; but paperwork is paperwork, and staffing is staffing. Teachers write out intervention plans for students who do fine in class, update them four times a year, gather to talk about all the students, and have the principal sign the forms. This is a waste of time that could be better used for class and lab preparation and for tutoring students.

There is so much in school that gets in the way of academics. Photos, fire drills, pep rallies, field days (field trips can be educational), fundraising, and missing school for sports all cut into the academic curricula, which is why schools exist in the first place. And now we have standardized testing, an extra burden for the administration, the teachers, and the students. It does little for student learning, and it interrupts the syllabus. There are classes spent on test preparation, then the actual test days themselves. Teachers teach two curricula now, one for the students based on true education, and another one based on test-taking to satisfy state testing standards. And the latter has priority over the former. Should a student miss standardized testing, class time is sacrificed for making up the test. Teachers are being forced to serve two masters: the old master of good curricula and the new master of standardized testing. When it comes to really imparting knowledge, the new master is the one we despise.

And why is this done? Do schools really think, “Let us do standardized testing in order to compare our performance with other schools”? Of course not. It is done because it is mandated. Laws, rules, mandates, and pressures from above deem these tests necessary. And, let us recognize that money drives standardized testing. Politicians must spend time fundraising for re-election campaigns, for politics today is driven by special interest groups. Is standardized testing another fundraising campaign? School funding is partially score-dependent. As the testing industry becomes bigger, the corruption of money becomes harder to ignore. Perhaps certain higher-ups, including politicians, want school testing because of personal financial interests. Like for the robber barons of days gone by and for the business barons of today, life gets really good when politicians make laws to keep their businesses, sometimes monopolies, going strong.

The results of standardized testing will stick with the teacher in the years to come. How great it is to know that student performance in these tests will be how a teacher is judged in the future. Students will be tracked from kindergarten on, but now it is not only the children who will be profiled with the tests, but also the teachers. It seems that we are going the way of the socialistic European countries, which does not bode well for our freedom, academic or otherwise.

Does standardized testing help teach a student logical reasoning and written and oral expression? Does it help with job skills? Does it help with socialization? A resounding “no” is expected for each answer.

Standardized testing used to be voluntarily done by students wishing to further their education in a college, graduate school, law school, medical school, or other program. Students who would take Stanley Kaplan courses in order to gain a competitive edge for admission purposes did so because they wanted to. It was for the student, not the school. Teachers were not judged by these tests, nor were their salaries based on test results. People argue that standardized testing helps weed out underperforming schools and bad teachers, a much newer purpose of tests. Yet private schools that do not take as many of these tests generally do better than public schools, often brag of 100 percent admittance to college. When Kyle and Jennifer Massey tried getting their child out of standardized testing in Texas, their letter mentioned that Texas public schools spend thirty-four days a year on this, according to an excerpt below. They won. Should other people follow suit, or even file suit?

Texas Public Schools will spend one of every five days or nearly 20% of the school year conducting tests. According to the Texas Education Agency, Texas public schools will spend 34 out of the 185 day long year conducting tests mandated by the state government. This does not include the regular testing in schools such as six-week test, quizzes, and final exams.

That any one student really spends thirty-four days doing this might be a misunderstanding, but too many days are lost of teaching real curricula in order to prepare students for standardized testing and to actually administer these tests.

No Child Left Behind can mean No Child Gets Ahead. Keeping one from failure can mean keeping one from success. Innovation comes not from the status quo, not from following orders, but from freedom—freedom to think and freedom to apply new programs that are self-evaluated without outside interference. How many of the most successful people in the United States today, especially in the computer industry, are self-starters and innovators? Standardization counteracts these freedoms, and in doing so, promotes educational mediocrity even as it claims to prevent it.

A college student taking Stanley Kaplan courses for entrance into a postgraduate program does so voluntarily. The MCAT, LSAT, and other tests are a fact of life that has been with us for a long time. But forcing children to act as laboratory animals for new state-driven and money-driven agenda is educational child abuse, and testing should be minimized, maybe even relegated to what we had in the past: the PSAT, and the SAT and the ACT taken voluntarily on Saturdays by those wishing to go to college.

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Published: Jun 16, 2017
Howard Merken
A Bible school graduate, Dr. Howard Merken also holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemistry from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Texas Tech University. He and his wife Casandra authored the now out-of-print Beyond Classical: The Next Step in Christian Education. A science professor-turned-Christian school-math-and-science-teacher, Dr. Merken is dedicated to teaching people how to use their minds for the glory of God.
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8 replies to this post
  1. C.S. Lewis, not fond of public schooling, was at this point in TLTW&TW only having a bit of fun about how older generations tend to dismiss the younger, and Mencken was a twit.

    Beyond that, a really good essay. Standardized testing is useful only as one (metaphorical) tool among many for evaluating the progress of an individual and then a group. The Texas legislature, apparently much influenced by Pearson Publishing, employs testing as a Procrustean Bed. The people (bless their hearts) of Texas complain, but they tend not to vote. The democratically-elected legislature and the democratically-elected boards of trustees are pleased to let the teachers (or, rather, “them teachers”) take the blame for the mendacity of government and the passivity of the people who elect their government.

  2. Lawrence: And we’ve really got to wonder how much the testing industry is affecting the laws. Pearson is here in San Antonio. Are they lobbying politicians? It’s not a long drive to Austin.

    • One need only look at the amount of money Pearson makes through its “testing service” to recognize the lobbying they do. It was upwards in NYS of 50 million, in Texas over 500 million and from the federal government about 300 million. As we can see Pearson now runs schools.

  3. Standardized testing can be good or bad depending on the standards being tested. Those are falling lower and lower. The education debate is always running away from this essential point. The idea that school should teach has itself become controversial in the West, with large numbers of people apparently under the impression that school exists to make a child feel good.

  4. Peter S. Rieth brings up a very good point about test standards. I live in the Midwest where the ACT is the main college entrance test taken. All four sections – math, science, reading and English – can, in a way, be “taught”. That is, with enough repetition and time management practice, one can exponentially increase one’s score. Once you learn about your score there’s a another section tells you about each topic within each section, so technically you can concentrate on your weaknesses and come back stronger.

  5. But who has to take the ACT? College-bound students, by their own free will. It is given four Saturdays this calendar year. It is NOT forced on students during school time. THAT is when things get out of hand.

    The Christian school where I taught for the last three years, which closed last month, had intervention plans which depended not on grades, but solely on standardized test scores from the previous year. In fact, our funding was partially dependent on these scores. I lost a couple of weeks this past year, one week for test preparation, and another for the actual testing. The reviews did help teach the students, but those two weeks would have been better spent in the regular syllabus.

  6. Perhaps I should clarify: I generally find the entire standardized testing system appalling. I think schools and educational Institutions – and teachers in particular should craft their own testing standards. That said, if we accept standardized testing then at least it should be rigorous. Instead they are very time consuming but academically poor – just like most of the textbooks used in schools today where there are ever less words, in ever bigger fonts and ever more pictures that immitate comics, television and the internet because it is assumed the subject alone is somehow not interesting. It may note be to young people bred on popular culture, but school exists to cure them of that…

  7. Of course I do not mean to preach the Christian gospel to every busy STEM student, but often people, parents and politicians and too often also scientists and theologians do not know what we do. Perhaps it is possible to conjecture that because of original sin, human beings do not know that there exists the Lord God of Nature, and that the human society cannot simply define its own so called sciences as pleases the politicians, at least not without social evils and losses of peace? For the sensible debate it must be said that we only have tradition to define what is good science. We will never know it all, and we do not know from the Lord God of Nature whether to include or exclude this or that in some science curriculum, but probably politicians know by far the least. Sometimes there is need for top-down reforms, it seems from history, when top-down reforms have been deemed to be succesful, like for instance in the brief Karolingian renaissance, but often top-down reforms derive from bottom-up experience gained by the people and some scholars. For the present days, I think, politicians seek to overstimulate economical growth.

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